Leadership Barometer 56 Don’t Enable Problem Employees

June 27, 2020

In any organization, there are situations where supervisors accommodate problem employees rather than confront them. Ignoring wrong actions models a “laissez faire” attitude on problem solving and enforcing rules.

It also enables the perpetrator to continue the wrong behavior. In a typical scenario, the problem festers under the surface for months, even years.

Ultimately escalation of the issue reaches a tipping point when something simply must be done. By this time, the problems are so horrendous they are many times more difficult to tackle.

A common example is when workers stretch break times from the standard 20 minutes to more than 30 minutes actually sitting in the break room.

The total duration away from work is more like 45 minutes from the time work stops until it resumes. The supervisor does not want to appear to be a “by the book” manager, so the problem is ignored every day. When things get too far out of control, the unfortunate supervisor is forced to play the bad guy, and everyone suffers a major loss in morale.

I once worked in a unit where one person suffered from acute alcoholism. His abusive behavior was enabled because his supervisor did not dare confront him. The employee had an excellent grasp of the technology used in the process, so the supervisor did not want to lose the person.

Finally, the situation became intolerable. When they called him in to confront the facts, he had been out of control for 15 years. His reaction to the manager was, “What took you guys so long?”

Following months of treatment, he became sober and was able to go on with his life as a positive contributor. Unfortunately, he was old enough by that time to retire; the organization had acted too late to gain much benefit from his recovery. The problem was clear, yet for years nothing was done.

In every organization, there are situations like this (not just health issues – tardiness, too many smoke breaks, or abusing other people are typical examples). Leaders often ignore the problem, hoping it will go away.

The advice here is to remember the comment made by my example, “What took you guys so long?” and intervene when the problems are less acute and the damage is minor. In his case, that would have been a blessing; the man died a few months after retiring.

Taking strong action requires courage that many leaders simply do not have. They rationalize the situation with logic like:

• Maybe the problem will correct itself if I just leave it alone.
• Perhaps I will be moved sometime soon, and the next person can deal with this.
• Confronting the issue would be so traumatic that it would do more harm than good.
• We have already found viable workaround measures, so why rock the boat now?
• We have bigger problems than this. Exposing this situation would be a distraction from our critical work.

The real dilemma is knowing the exact moment to intervene and how to do it in a way that preserves trust with the individual and the group.

Once you let someone get away with a violation, it becomes harder to enforce a rule the next time.

The art of supervision is knowing how to make judgments that people interpret as fair, equitable, and sensitive. The best time to intervene is when the issue first arises.

As a supervisor, you need to make the rules known and follow them yourself with few and only well-justified exceptions. It is not possible to treat everyone always the same, but you must enforce the rules consistently in a way that people recognize is both appropriate and disciplined.

Be alert for the following symptoms in your area of control. If you observe these, chances are you are enabling problem employees.

• Recognition that you are working around a “problem”
• Accusations that you are “playing favorites”
• Individuals claiming they do not understand documented policies
• Backroom discussions of how to handle a person who is out of control
• Denial or downplaying an issue that is well known in the area
• Fear of retaliation or sabotage if rules are enforced
• Cliques forming to protect certain individuals
• Pranks or horseplay perpetrated on some individuals

These are just a few signals that someone is being enabled and that you need to step up to the responsibility of being the enforcer.

Sometimes supervisors inherit an undisciplined situation from a previous weak leader. It can be a challenge to get people to follow rules they have habitually ignored.

One idea is to get the group together and review company policy or simply ask what the rules are in this organization. Often people do not know the policies, or pretend they do not know, because the application of rules has been eclectic.

This void gives you a perfect opportunity to restate or recast the rules to start fresh. It can be done as a group exercise to improve buy-in. When people have a hand in creating the rules, they tend to remember and follow them better.

If you are not a new leader but are in a situation where abuse has crept in, using this technique and taking responsible action can help you regain control and credibility.

I advocate asking a lot of questions rather than just demanding everyone follow the rule. Here are some questions that can get a discussion going (note I will use the issue of break time here as an example):

• Do you understand the need for some limitations for the length of breaks?
• Do you think we are better off if we apply the rules the same way for everyone?
• Is it possible for the crew to enforce the rules without the need for a supervisor?
• Do we intend to follow the rules?
• What should happen to someone who does not follow the rules?

The reward for making the tough calls is that people throughout the organization will respect you. Problems will be handled early when they are easier to correct. The downside of procrastinating on enforcement is that you appear weak, and people will continually push the boundaries.


Bob consults and speaks on these and other leadership topics. He is CEO of Leadergrow Inc. a company dedicated to growing leaders.


Leadership Barometer 39 Stop Enabling Problem Employees

February 23, 2020

In any organization, there are situations where supervisors accommodate problem employees rather than confront them. Ignoring wrong actions models a laissez faire attitude on problem solving and enforcing rules.

It also enables the perpetrator to continue the wrong behavior. In a typical scenario, the problem festers under the surface for months or even years.

Ultimately escalation of the issue reaches a tipping point when something simply must be done. By this time, the problems are so horrendous they are many times more difficult to tackle.

A common example is when workers stretch break times from the standard 20 minutes to more than 30 minutes actually sitting in the break room.

The total duration is more like 45 minutes from the time work stops until it resumes. The supervisor does not want to appear to be a “by the book” manager, so the problem is ignored every day.

When things get too far out of control, the unfortunate supervisor is forced to play the bad guy, and everyone suffers a major loss in morale and trust.

I once worked in a unit where one person suffered from acute alcoholism. His abusive behavior was enabled because his supervisor did not dare confront him. The excuse was that his process knowledge was so important to the organization that he could not be fired.

Finally, the situation became intolerable. When they called him in to confront the facts, he had been out of control for 15 years. His reaction to the manager was, “What took you guys so long?”

Following months of treatment, he became sober and was able to go on with his life as a positive contributor. Unfortunately, he was old enough by that time to retire; the organization had acted too late to gain much benefit from his recovery. The problem was clear, yet for years nothing was done.

In every organization, there are situations like this (not just health issues – tardiness, too many smoke breaks, or abusing the internet are typical examples). Leaders often ignore the problem, hoping it will go away or fearing that the cure will be worse than the disease.

The advice here is to remember the comment made by my friend, “What took you guys so long?” and intervene when the problems are less acute and the damage is minor. In his case, that would have been a blessing; the man died a few months after retiring.

Taking strong action requires courage that many leaders simply do not have. They rationalize the situation with logic like:

• Maybe the problem will correct itself if I just leave it alone.
• Perhaps I will be moved sometime soon, and the next person can deal with this.
• Confronting the issue would be so traumatic that it would do more harm than good.
• We have already found viable workaround measures, so why rock the boat now?
• We have bigger problems than this. Exposing this situation would be a distraction from our critical work.

The real dilemma is knowing the exact moment to intervene and how to do it in a way that preserves trust with the individual and the group.

Once you let someone get away with a violation, it becomes harder to enforce a rule the next time. You also run the risk of appearing to play favorites when you try to clamp down on other individuals.

The art of supervision is knowing how to make judgments that people interpret as fair, equitable, and sensitive. The best time to intervene is when the issue first arises. As a supervisor, you need to make the rules known and follow them yourself with few and only well-justified exceptions.

It is not possible to treat everyone always the same because people have different needs, but you must enforce the rules consistently in a way that people recognize is both appropriate and disciplined.

Be alert for the following symptoms in your area of control. If you observe these, chances are you are enabling problem employees.

• Recognition that you are working around a “problem”
• Accusations that you are “playing favorites”
• Individuals claiming they do not understand documented policies
• Backroom discussions of how to handle a person who is out of control
• Denial or downplaying an issue that is well known in the area
• Fear of retaliation or sabotage if rules are enforced
• Cliques forming to protect certain individuals
• Pranks or horseplay perpetrated on some individuals

These are just a few signals that someone is being enabled and that you need to step up to the responsibility of being the enforcer.

Sometimes supervisors inherit an undisciplined situation from a previous weak leader. It can be a challenge to get people to follow rules they have habitually ignored.

One idea is to get the group together and review company policy or simply ask what the rules are in this organization. Often people do not know the policies, or pretend they do not know, because the application of rules has been eclectic.

This void gives you a perfect opportunity to restate or recast the rules to start fresh. It can be done as a group exercise to improve buy-in. When people have a hand in creating the rules, they tend to remember and follow them better.

If you are not a new leader but are in a situation where abuse has crept in, using this technique and taking responsible action can help you regain control and credibility.

The reward for making the tough calls is that people throughout the organization will respect you. Problems will be handled early when they are easier to correct. The downside of procrastinating on enforcement is that you appear weak, and people will continually push the boundaries.

The preceding information was adapted from the book Leading with Trust is like Sailing Downwind, by Robert Whipple. It is available on http://www.leadergrow.com.

Robert Whipple is also the author of The TRUST Factor: Advanced Leadership for Professionals and, Understanding E-Body Language: Building Trust Online. Bob consults and speaks on these and other leadership topics. He is CEO of Leadergrow Inc. a company dedicated to growing leaders.


Favoritism is a Huge Problem

July 5, 2010

Playing favorites is one of the most damaging problems in any group of people. Leaders who practice favoritism in the workplace have no chance to build a culture of trust. In business schools, they teach that the antidote for playing favorites is to treat everyone the same way. But this is a trap that can cause problems because it ignores the simple fact that all people are different.

On the occasion of the death of John Wooden, the great basketball coach from UCLA, Tony Robbins re-released an interview he did with John a few years before his death. In the interview, Tony was asking how John dealt with the issue of treating some players differently from the others. John made the following remarkable statement, “treating everyone the same is the surest way to show favoritism.”

The statement caught me off guard because I was always taught that we must treat everyone the same way to avoid the problem of being biased toward one person over another. John was suggesting that exactly the opposite phenomenon was happening. How could this be? To answer this question, we need to consider the nature of favoritism and its implications.

First, it is important to recognize we all have favorite people in our lives. You cannot have exactly the same feelings about different individuals. On some level, you are going to like being with or working with one person more than another. To deny any favoritism within you for other people is to deny your humanity.

So, I have favorites, but does this mean that I play favorites? I think so because I will instinctively want to slant my world conditions to be allowed to spend more time with people I like and less time with people I do not like. Then I will begin to worry that I am not treating people equally and perhaps over compensate to give preference for people I do not like as much in order to not appear biased. After a while it becomes impossible to tell if I am being fair or hopelessly partial.

Getting back to Wooden’s quote, if I treat everyone the same way, I am for sure being biased because each individual is unique. The needs of different people require me to treat them differently. In order to not show blatant favoritism, I must take into consideration individual needs and do my best to treat everyone the right way. This means NOT treating everyone the same way. But then, won’t I appear to be playing favorites to some outside observers. This conundrum can drive you slowly insane.

I believe there are some effective antidotes to this dilemma? Here are some simple ideas that can help:

1. Be aware of the issue of favoritism and use the word when a decision might be perceived as practicing it. Say, “I am asking George to do this budget revision again. Since I have done this in the past, I do not want to be perceived as playing favorites. George has the accounting background to do this work. If others of you would like to work with the budget, let me know and I will help you get some training so you can do it in the future.”

2. Operate outside your normal pattern for some percentage of the time. This allows you the opportunity to show you are not always picking a certain person for assignments. There may be some small risk in doing this, but you can mitigate it by selecting the application to change assignments.

3. Create a culture where cross training of people is routine. In doing so, you develop bench strength, and you can demonstrate less tendencies toward favoritism.

4. Be inclusive rather than exclusive with your language when you address groups. Your choice of words will give away your feelings toward others, so always seek to use language that reflects a broad rather than narrow range of people.

5. Be alert to your own body language. We communicate more through body language than words. It is important to be cognizant of your facial expressions and posture when interfacing with all people to not project a strong bias. If you are the kind of manager who pats people on the back, make sure you do that for everyone when it is deserved.

6. Test for your own biases. Most managers are not even aware of their tendency to play favorites, so it is difficult to see the damage to trust when it is happening. Seek out a trusted individual who will tell you if your actions are being perceived as slanted toward one or more individuals. Caution: do not select one of your favorite people to solicit this information or you will obviously defeat the purpose.

7. Build Trust – with high trust, people understand the intent of actions better and can interpret complex interpersonal issues between people.  If trust is low, people instinctively assume the worst intent rather than the best intent. 

These actions, along with a general awareness, can mitigate the problem of appearing to play favorites. Even though as a human being you do have favorite people, you can operate with fairness and integrity if you do not try to treat all individuals the same way in every instance.


Leaders Discourage Cliques

December 7, 2009

My business is built on helping organizations build higher levels of trust. One significant trust buster that is evident, even in the best organizations, is the presence of cliques. These informal groups continuously drain the trust from the larger organization by fostering a culture of exclusivity. Since joining together with like-minded people has been human nature back to the “Clan of the Cave Bear,” how can an organization reduce the negative impact of these insular cells?

It is a function of leadership to set the tone of any culture. If leaders either condone cliques or encourage them by participating in them, the cells will continue to enjoy their exclusivity at the expense of the larger organization. The conundrum is that cliques are highly prized by the people in them. The support structure allows all members to poke fun at others who are outside the fence and create their own set of norms. This builds in a kind of polarization that is as uncomfortable to the outsiders as it is gratifying to the elite.

What can leaders do to discourage the formation of cliques?

1. Be Aware of Cliques – The first line of defense is to recognize what is going on. I would wager that your workplace has numerous little groups of people that form naturally and insulate themselves from others for several reasons. You can see manifestations when the same people sit together in the break room – often in the same seats – every day for years. Another easy way to spot cliques is to watch how people on a shift arrange themselves during a shift meeting. E-mail distributions are another dead give away that there are cells of people communicating with each other and not with the general population. Leaders can use many techniques to encourage a more homogenous population.
2. Encourage an inclusive culture regularly – If leaders would continually stress that our power is in the diverse thoughts of the entire population and everyone’s input is important, it will send a subtle message that insular groups are not always helpful. Caveat: It would backfire if the leader put a ban on sub-groups because that would either drive them underground or embolden them based on the forbidden fruit logic. Rather, the leader needs to demonstrate by actions and words that a broad representation is most often in the best interest of everyone.
3. Take a few king pins aside – in any society there are informal leaders who establish themselves as the “Grand Poobah” of the group. Their words carry the most weight, and they have more than their fair share of say in who is allowed to join the group. All these pecking order considerations are informal, but they are all in play as the group carries on daily activities. As a leader, you can befriend the informal leaders and ask them to open up the club to new members. I think one way to make progress is to enroll the informal leaders by seeking their advice on how to reduce exclusivity in the organization. These conversations will be tricky, but if handled properly, you can woo these people into becoming forces for the good in your organization.
4. Mix things up in meetings – you might have some kind of rotation in seating arrangements or some other mechanical way to get people to mingle in different social arrangements. One way to do this naturally is to have some team building events where the team selection is objectively random. People will accept an arbitrary team assignment if it is obvious there is no particular agenda in the selection process. If you prescribe the seating arrangement to specifically break up a clique, people will push back.
5. Transplant people – this is a kind of last resort if all else fails. You can move the job assignments so the exclusive social interfaces are broken up by time and space. Caveat: arbitrary work assignments designed to break up cliques are often unpopular, and you may cause more damage than you eliminate if you use a heavy hand. One antidote is to espouse a strong philosophy of cross training individuals to improve bench strength and provide development opportunities. People generally appreciate these objectives even if they tend to break up historical social groupings.
6. Inject new blood – Sometimes the addition of a new strong personality will have the effect of breaking up an existing structure and allow the creation of a new order. Of course, the cure could be worse than the disease, so you need to keep alert that you are progressing rather than retrogressing by bringing in new people.
7. Reorganize – Many leaders use a kind of “shake and bake” reorganization philosophy when trying to reduce inbreeding. A new organization really does break up the old gang, but just like transplanting individuals, it is often not welcomed. An effective reorganization takes a lot of study, and you need to have a good justification for making the move other than to break up cliques. Making reorganizations successful requires a lot of energy, communication, planning, and involvement of the people. Do not just throw out a new structure as a way to mix things up. Maybe a good analogy here is a garden. If you have a nice flower garden but some of the plants have become root bound, you want to carefully thin things out, not just roto-till the entire garden.
8. Reward inclusion – One good way to prevent exclusion is to talk about and reward inclusion at every opportunity. Make it a value for the organization and highlight good examples through the usual communication channels.
9. Sit with them – I often found that just sitting with a clique in the break room a few times a week would send a signal that they are not an exclusive club. As a manager you have the right to sit with your people for purposes of getting to know them better. It may feel uncomfortable at first, especially if the clique has an activity to keep them insulated (like a bridge game or something). Just keep looking for ways to interface with the group in ways that show you are interested in their opinions and ideas. Eventually you can gain their confidence, and your presence will be welcome rather than an intrusion. Then you can invite another person to join the discussion. This method takes time, but it does work.

Reducing cliques in the working world or in social groups is delicate work. Keep stressing that the ideal organization taps into the good ideas of all people. It is the interplay of ideas that creates a healthy organization.